Interview with Prof. Vetterli
We spoke with EPFL President Martin Vetterli about the new Engineering Humanitarian Aid initiative – a joint program bringing together EPFL, ETH Zurich and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to put engineering know-how at the service of humanitarian aid.
EPFL has been working with the ICRC for a long time. What’s new about this initiative?
What are the benefits for EPFL and ETH Zurich in developing technology for humanitarian aid?
In addition, many of the problems that aid workers face require high-tech know-how; these problems raise interesting challenges for our researchers and for Swiss society in general, including in the area of data security.
“Humanitarian aid is a key sector in which EPFL can bring tangible skills.”
– Martin Vetterli, EPFL President
ETH Domain is committing CHF 5 million over two years – that doesn’t seem to be much relative to the schools’ overall budgets.
This initial funding is intended to get the program started and demonstrate its added value. Our goal is to bring in additional partners and anchor the program for the long term, drawing on Switzerland’s ecosystem. And to help us meet that ambitious goal, we just started looking for additional financial backers.
Will the technology developed under this initiative have a real impact on the lives of people in need?
Of course that’s our intention. The research projects we’ve chosen to support are very targeted and respond to specific problems – meaning they will meet a real need. For instance, one of these projects involves using artificial intelligence to estimate population density, because knowing the size of conflict-affected groups could help the ICRC deliver its aid more effectively. Another example is the Agilis project to develop a prosthesis. This project was run in the Humanitarian Tech Hub between 2016 and 2019 and involved the ICRC and several EPFL labs. The ICRC took the lead on the project in 2020 and filed a patent (for the first time ever!) to protect the technology. Now the ICRC is manufacturing 200 prototypes for clinical trials in 2021.
Does that mean that EPFL and ETH Zurich’s role will simply be to make the ICRC’s efforts more effective and better organized?
For example, the biometric system being developed under one of our projects will let aid workers deliver targeted aid to the people who need it without collecting personal data that could be hacked by hostile groups and therefore put people at risk. With humanitarian needs on the rise and resources increasingly limited, this will also allow aid to reach more people.